Miguel Salcido brought up an interesting point in his comment on my last post about SEO Witchcraft. In it, he mentioned "all the snake oil salesmen out there that have given people a negative connotation towards SEO". I cannot argue there. Not one bit. I've talked to many a client who tell me to write them web copy without 'any of that SEO stuff'. However, I think SEOs need to stop looking at just one cause. They need to look around as well as at themselves before laying blame. I have a lot to say here, so bare with me. I promise that the discussion will be well worth it, or at least I look forward to discussing it....
The SEO industry has found itself in a unique position. It's an entirely new concept that remains a complete mystery to most of society. Therefore, clients have a large amount of distrust for their experts regardless of how much time they spend choosing one.
All in all, SEOers seem to have gained a title that's synonymous with snake-oil salesmen. Pretty harsh for what seems like a legit career. With fierce opponents on both sides, the question still remains: Is the SEO industry really that bad?
SEO in the Eyes of the Search Engines
To the search engines, SEOs are the 'enemy'. Think about it. Google, MSN, and all of the other players are businesses, just like an SEO company. The only difference is that the search engines want to enchant as many users as they can with their quality results while making as much money as possible through advertising. Like any business, their end goal is to make a huge profit.
To get the best search results, SEs spend millions of dollars hiring some of the best technical minds in the world. On top of this, there's the millions of dollars spent on unique algorithms. Then, along comes the gosh darn SEO people who play around until they figure out how to game the system. These professionals destroy the SEs quality results and render the algorithms useless. The results end up looking nothing like they would naturally and the money spent on algos and computer experts goes down the tubes.
If the search engines had their way, SEOs would do nothing but make a website easier to use and better for the end client. That is the goal for SEO, but it's the wooing of the search engine spiders that become the issue.
In this regard, search engines are a lot like the smart kid in school who always has the answers. But, like every school, there's the bad boys who are by no means less intelligent. They just tend to save their knowledge for real-life situations.
SEO and the Client
Clients are a lot like the new kid at school. They have all of these potential new friends, but they aren't quite sure about the politics, and therefore, they tend to hesitate before associating with a particular person.
You see, Mr. Webmaster thinks his new site is just spiffy, but there's one problem: the search engines don't seem to have the same opinion of his website. Lo and behold, here come the crafty SEOs on their (white/black/grey/pink-with-purple-polka-dotted) horses. The crowd goes wild, right? Well, not quite.
You see, if Mr. Webmaster hasn't already heard that SEO is the root of all online evils, he will as soon as he starts looking for one. He knows that if a website owner gets caught using these techniques, he'll lose his business. However, Mr. Webmaster has also heard that the right SEO company will have everything running smoothly and making the big bucks in no time. But, how does he tell the good guys from the bad guys?
Educate the Client?
Part of the problem here is the fact that clients have absolutely no idea about any of this stuff. It's like going to your doctor for a diagnosis. You know what the problem is, but likely have no idea what caused it or how to fix it.
Yes, you can educate clients, but in short, it's not always the most helpful way to do things. Your doctor doesn't give you a lecture before he treats you. And if he did, would you listen?
Here's another thought to consider: If you wouldn't buy a home without educating yourself a bit, why in the world would you spend a chunk of your business budget on something you know nothing about? When I bought my home, I didn't need to know how to build my house from the ground up, but I did have some idea about what was good and not good. I then hired an expert who knew the rest, so in the end, I knew what I was buying.
Why would you simply walk up to the salesman, had him a wad of cash and say 'I think I need what you're selling, but I don't really know much about it, so just go to it'? As far as I'm concerned, that's asking for trouble. (Not saying it makes it right, just saying you're leaving yourself vulnerable.) Yes, this is a client issue, but the blame doesn't just lie with them.
Do SEOs Shoot Themselves in the Foot?
There's a huge issue with conflicting information. SEO Bigwig #1 says you can't do this, the search engines don't like it and they'll ban you. SEO Bigwig #2 says that he's been using that technique since the creation of the Internet and it works like a charm. Then, you have SEO Bigwig #3 who says, well yes, that technique works, but only if you do this, this, and that first and do this when you do that.
So, where does this confusion leave the general public? These disagreements always seem to happen in plain view of the public and they often go viral. To put this into context, let's say it's three doctors arguing over a rash you have on your big toe. One doctor wants to cut your whole leg off. The second doctor says there's no need to cut anything off, just put a cream on it. And, the third one wants to put you through a series of tests, cut off the toe, and cover the rest of your foot in cream for good measure. If you have three doctors arguing over your treatment, how confident would you be?
Bottom line, people can't put their trust in SEO like they can in other industries because nothing is definite. No standards, no regulations, not even a set of general rules, unless you follow the webmaster guidelines published by the search engines. And, if you think that's all you need, refer back to the first section where we discuss the whole 'search engines are a profit making company' thing.
Now, when newbies get into this industry, they find tons and tons of conflicting information. So, to solve this problem, they look for those who seemed to be authorities. The idea is that they'd be getting good information. And, they'll have tons of good information, but the problem is that the authorities in the industry don't seem to agree either.
What Is a Quality SEO?
The comment by Rodney Riley on Rand's post 'What Makes an SEO' stated that 'Many professions exist without the requirement of qualifications' and named web development as an example. Well yes, he's right, but, to the inexperienced client who knows nothing of how the Web really works, bad development means the site doesn't work or doesn't look right. When the client gets a design from the coder, all he cares about is that it works and looks good.
The ability of a client to look through the web developer's portfolio and see that everything looks good along with some good testimonials is all he needs to say 'yep, this is who I'm hiring'. With an SEO, this just isn't the case.
SEOs can provide a series of testimonials and case studies, but even this is only going to get them so far. Ultimately, the client has to trust their SEO company enough to hand over the cash and let the experts do their thing. If they don't have that trust, it will lead to those 'are you sure about that because so-and-so said this' conversations. And, we all know that this leads nowhere.
As d.gudaitis said in his comment on the post, 'The best marketers aren't certified, they are recognized by results.' This is exactly how SEO companies climb to the top, but there's a little snag here too. How do you prove that one technique or another is responsible? Is it really the SEO company? As any good researcher or tester will tell you, there are always internal and external factors to consider. Holidays, seasons, news, and industry happenings influence sales and traffic all the time.
Yet another conundrum for the SEO industry is defining what a 'quality' job really is. One company might bring in a huge amount of generic traffic, but is that a quality job? Or, is an SEO company who brings in a smaller amount of targeted traffic better? AND, is the client's definition of quality SEO the same as yours?
Believe it or not, there are a ton of business owners out there who seem to think that 8,000 visitors with one conversion is a great result. They hunger for the traffic and that's all that matters to them.
Maybe quality SEO has less to do with the actual results and more to do with how well a company can read the client? And, if the company decides that just bringing in traffic is enough, is that fair to the customer? Is that even ethical? The answer to that, I'm afraid, is a matter of personal opinion.
SEO Trials and Tribulations
SEOers have become the lawyers and dentists of the online world. These are the professions that you know you need, but the encounter isn't always pleasant and it's definitely going to take some coin to get the results you want.
In several ways, lawyers and doctors have the added advantage. They're regulated, they go to school, and there's a direct consequence if they do something they're not supposed to. With SEO, there's no 'rules', no standards, no regulation, and not much in terms of repercussions. That's not very appealing for a paying client. So, how do you get around that?
Follow the Leader aka Not Enough Cooks in the Kitchen
(Sorry, but as soon as Marie-Claire Jenkins showed me this, it just really fit my next point.)
Educate the client. Well, we've already looked at that and we get back to that 'who's right' problem. One person says something, then others follow, and the next thing you know, a large part of the crowd is singing the same tune. The problem is that no one stops along the way to question it.
Everyone immediately takes up the flag saying this hidden technique works and is the next big 'SEO Secret' because Mr. SEO Big Wig says it does. And, herein lies the cause of the industry's biggest woes. If someone does suddenly holler 'stop the bus', he or she is often chastised by the industry.
Yes, Mr. SEO Big Wig said he tested it and it worked, but can others get the same results with the same technique? If they can't, or if it only has a 50% success rate, is it really the next big industry buzz? If so, how long before things change and how long until someone notices that it no longer works?
If you really did discover a fantastic technique that works brilliantly, would you be in such a rush to take your 15 minutes of fame? Or, would you keep your mouth shut so that your competitors don't start using it and cause the search engines to render your newfound magic useless?
Personally, a lifetime of wealth and becoming an industry leader is going to benefit me a whole lot more than being 'that chick who found that technique that worked for a couple of months about 5 years back'.
Isn't Image Everything?
In many regards, the SEO industry spends far too much time arguing about everything instead of working together and looking at the things that really matter. Don't get me wrong. Discussion is always a good thing, but anyone who has discussed Jill's posts, LSI, or any posts proclaiming that 'SEO is dead' will attest to the spats and mudslinging (some friendly, some not so much).
These disagreements are seen by many of those outside the industry including designers, developers, and most importantly, potential clients and income sources. The seed of mistrust begins to grow and it makes it harder for clients to trust you as an SEO. In all honesty, you have to wonder if the arguing is worth it.
For some strange reason, some SEOs seem to have a habit of taunting and belittling clients. In some instances, there's very little regard for the client and it's done almost with arrogance. This undoubtedly taints the 'victim', but what about other clients who happen to see this and think 'what would happen if I do something wrong?'
And look at how the industry divides itself. It's clear that not everyone sees this the same way, but I guarantee you that 'one bad apple spoils the whole bunch'. Yes, a client might be a pain in the backside, and yes, they screwed up, and yes, they were rude and ignorant, but seriously: Is lowering yourself to their level or being less than professional benefiting you or the industry any? Here's another thought...when was the last time you heard a doctor or lawyer 'out' a client? Hmmm...
I was once told that being looked up to by your fellow professionals will elevate you to a level of authority, but will it really? Just because other SEOs look to you for advice doesn't mean that you're right. It just means you have a following (and anyone who's been on Twitter knows how well this works). Not saying that it has no effect, but to an outside client who knows nothing of the industry, your reputation among your peers isn't going to mean squat.
In the end, it's the clients who hold the money, not your competition. And, it's the clients who'll ultimately determine whether your work is getting the best results. Also, if you continue to achieve great success and gain a loyal following of clients, your competitors are sure to notice. (Oh sorry, I already use XYZ SEO Company. I've had great success with them and so has everyone else I've talked to. DOH!)
Most other products and services work this way too. If I want to go to a dentist or a lawyer, for example, I go to one that has had good results with other clients. I'd be an idiot to ask one dentist or lawyer what he thinks of another one. This makes me wonder if SEO is a peer driven industry, or a client based one.
How about a Masters in SEO? A Rule Book?
Educating SEOs and standards are the answer. Well, not exactly. When the social media degree first created a stir, my argument was that the industry changes far too fast for the course to be worth much of anything. The same thing holds true for SEO.
Standards are the same. A few short years ago, keyword stuffing was the perfect technique, but today, this is no longer the case. (Who came up with this idea anyway? We need to chat.)
Then, there's the whole 'where do you draw the line between acceptable and not acceptable' argument. And if it's acceptable, who's the judge? Google? Yahoo!? What about the little guys?
These are all businesses remember.
Who is Google to tell MSN what to do? What about the little guys whose algos work completely different from any other? One set of standards might not work for them. Does that mean that everyone should conform?
Maybe the SEOs should get together and set their own standards. Who will decide the difference between right and wrong then? Remember that just because Google says it's wrong doesn't necessarily mean that there's anything wrong with that. MSN might love it. More importantly, how could we get all of the SEOs to agree on anything? I've yet to see it happen. The industry is simply too vast and has far too many 'circles' and branches.
In the end, it seems that nothing will improve until SEO sorts itself out or society becomes better educated as a whole. Unfortunately, you can't help but wonder what will happen inside the industry in the mean time and exactly how long that's going to take. For all we know, it could be another 20 years, and by that time, SEO could really be dead leaving the vultures to pick over the remains. If it happened to Silicon Valley, it can happen to anyone.
Definitely something SEOs should ponder.
Angie Nikoleychuk (Haggstrom) is the Senior Copywriter and Consultant at Angie's Copywriting Services. She loves to create SEO Web copy and other types of online and offline content, but she figures SEO and Social Media is pretty great too. She likes to chat about business and marketing, find great links, and more. Oh, and you can find this copywriter on Twitter too.